States, fed not assuring enough sick leave

By DAR HADDIX, UPI Business Correspondent  |  June 16, 2004 at 9:30 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 16 (UPI) -- States and the federal government are doing a poor job of making sure employees get paid sick leave, according to a report by the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Sick leave benefits businesses, the study added, by allowing sick workers to stay home and not infect others, improving worker performance, and helping children recover faster.

The study, "Get Well Soon: Americans Can't Afford to be Sick," looked at how each state, the District of Columbia, and the federal government provide access to paid sick days for public and private-sector workers.

On a report-card scale of A to F, no state earned an A. California earned a B+. Most states fell somewhere between C and D-. The federal government earned a C- for its family sick leave policy.

"The findings paint a picture of need and neglect," said Debra Ness, National Partnership president-elect. "The failure to provide paid sick days to workers causes profound harm to families, and unnecessary costs to businesses, which pay to recruit and train new workers when providing paid sick leave to employees already in place would cost considerably less."

The report was released in conjunction with Tuesday's announcement of The Healthy Families Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Representative Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. The Healthy Families Act would guarantee seven paid sick days annually for full-time employees, and a pro-rata amount for part-time employees. It would cover public and private sector employers with at least 15 employees.

Using a report-card scale of A-F, California, which earned a B+ for its family-leave benefits, is the best-ranked state. Hawaii won a B, and New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island each received a B-. On the other end of the spectrum, Mississippi and Louisiana ranked the worst, each earning a dismal F.

Many states fell into the D and D- echelons. Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming each received D-. Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Vermont each earned a D.

Connecticut, Minnesota and Washington earned a C+; Alaska, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin each garnered a C-.

The study awarded the federal government a grade of C-. Federal workers get 13 paid sick days a year, more than some in the private sector, but no better than what many states offer their own employees. And the federal government, unlike many states, does not require private employers to provide any paid sick leave, the study noted.

Fifty-nine million public and private U.S. workers have no paid sick leave at all, and 86 million public and private workers have no paid sick leave that can be used to care for sick children, the study said, citing other research by the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

(The IWPR study looked at data from 1996-1998 on 122 million out of 137 million U.S. workers. It looked at workers in the private sector and from state and local governments, and excluded workers in the federal government, agriculture, household workers, and those that were self-employed.)

Both parents work in 78 percent of U.S. families, the National Partnership study said, but working women do the majority of the care-giving in most families. Nearly half of working mothers said they forgo pay when they stay home with a sick child, the study said. Children ages 5-17 miss more than three school days per year on average because they are sick.

Whether parents can stay home also affects their children's health, the study said. Parents who could not afford to take sick leave to care for their children described negative effects on the children, including missed doctor's appointments and inadequate early attention which caused the child's illness or condition to get worse. Conversely, when parents can stay home with their sick children, it helps reduce the length of hospital stays by 31 percent, and helps children recover faster from outpatient procedures.

Those who do have paid sick days often cannot take them to care for sick family members, the study said. The report cited research that showed 34 percent of parents surveyed said that taking time off to care for ill children caused friction at work, 12 percent said it led to pay losses, and 13 percent said it resulted in lost promotions or lost jobs.

Forty-four percent of corporate human resource executives said that their companies have a problem with "presenteeism," or problems caused by workers who come to work sick, according to another study cited by the report. The other study, released April 2004 by the Cornell University Institute for Health and Productivity Studies, found that presenteeism cost employers on average about $255 annually, and that on-the-job losses from presenteeism may account for as much as 61 percent of an employee's overall medical and lost productivity costs. This is more than the costs of absenteeism and medical and disability benefits combined, the other study said.

Finally, businesses that provide the option to take sick leave have workers with higher morale, less turnover and training costs, and less absenteeism, the study said. "Being able to take time off to recover from an illness or care for a sick child or spouse is fundamental to being able to balance work and family responsibilities," the study said.

The National Partnership noted the impending release of another study, to be released later this week by The Project on Global Working Families at Harvard University, which finds that the United States ranks behind the rest of the world in giving workers paid sick days. One hundred thirty-nine nations provide paid leave for short- or long- term illnesses, and 117 of those nations guarantee their workers a week or more of paid sick leave per year.

The federal Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides only unpaid leave for serious illnesses to the roughly 60 percent of workers that it covers.

"It is hard to believe that in this country almost 50 percent of workers have to choose between risking their jobs or going to the doctor when they are sick," Rep. DeLauro, who co-sponsored the Healthy Families Act, said. "With this legislation we move one step closer to guaranteeing that all workers can obtain a minimum amount of paid sick days so they can deal with their medical needs or those of their family members."

"Get Well Soon" authors awarded points to each state based on the programs made available to private and public sector employees. As most employees work in the private sector, the point system favors laws that provide protection and benefits to private sector employees. For private-sector workers, researchers looked at job-protected paid sick days; family leave benefits available to care for seriously ill family members, infants or newly placed adoptive and foster children; short-term disability programs; and requirements that employers let workers use paid sick days to care for family members. For public sector workers, researchers examined paid sick days, paid personal days, sick leave pools and other measures.

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